23 Oct 2007
by Ned Macey
The Ravens went 13-3 last season, the best regular season record in their young history. Following a desultory performance in the playoffs, they decided to tinker. Their one obvious weakness was an inconsistent ground attack, so they traded for Willis McGahee and let the declining Jamal Lewis depart. McGahee has been an upgrade over Lewis, but following a loss in Buffalo on Sunday, Baltimore has already lost as many games in 2007 as they did in all of 2006. Older players have battled injuries and decline, and the Ravens pass offense has lost any semblance of a vertical component. Maybe even more disturbingly, their own pass defense is far from dominating.
The Bills were a mediocre 7-9 a season ago but did not believe they were one player away. Instead, they let star defensive players Nate Clements and London Fletcher depart in free agency. The young defense was hampered by numerous early season injuries but is starting to find its form.
Despite the rebuilding, the Bills are a few plays away from having a winning record. They are 4-2 after 59 minutes of action, but unfortunately, they are only 2-4 after 60 minutes. They have been slaughtered in road contests against New England and Pittsburgh, but they are highly competitive at home. Most of their success is based on the defense that had its coming out party against Dallas several weeks ago.
A number of young players were impressive on Sunday. Second year safety Donte Whitner made several nice plays slicing into the line on running plays. More encouraging were a couple of huge plays by defensive tackle John McCargo, who stuffed McGahee on two separate occasions. McCargo, a first round pick last season, has been a bit of a disappointment so far but made the two best plays by a Bills' lineman.
The defense showed a propensity for forcing turnovers against Dallas, but their strategy on Sunday was to avoid giving up the big play. That strategy worked perfectly because the Bills were facing Kyle Boller of the Ravens. The Ravens imported Steve McNair last season to be their first above-average quarterback in the Brian Billick era. Unfortunately, McNair is 34 years old and has taken so many hits he plays like he is 54. Predictably, McNair has missed a handful of games this season, opening the door for Boller.
The former first-round pick failed as the starting quarterback between 2003 and 2005. Boller has looked promising in relief appearances both last year and earlier this year. Against Buffalo, however, his limitations were on full display. Boller is quite simply not accurate enough to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
The Bills had their linebackers take deep drops on passing plays, forcing Boller to throw underneath. Boller's best attribute is his arm strength, and it really is his only NFL-caliber trait. He is unable to hit underneath receivers in stride to allow them to pick up yards after the catch. Boller's receivers average only 3.2 yards after the catch -- that's the lowest figure for any quarterback who has attempted 100 passes.
The problem is not the offense, as receivers catching passes from McNair gain yards after catch at a league-average rate. Furthermore, on passes that travel under five yards, Boller has completed 65 percent of his passes this year, while McNair has completed 82 percent.
The offense's reliance on short passes is extremely troubling. Derrick Mason is a quality possession receiver, but he is averaging an anemic 9.4 yards per reception. Mark Clayton, an emerging talent a season ago, has been invisible because he excels on plays down the field.
The lack of downfield passing has led to ill-advised calls for Boller on a full-time basis. He tantalizes with his arm. His fourth quarter touchdown pass to Derrick Mason was an absolute laser that is as good a throw as will be made in the NFL all season. On the critical last drive, however, Boller had three attempts to complete one yard. All three passes were off target, and the Ravens turned it over on downs.
Of course, the crazy part was that Boller was even attempting three consecutive passes when they only needed one yard. McGahee was supposed to bring a newfound toughness to the running game. He delivered with 114 yards on 19 carries, but he was a bystander on the game-ending sequence. Time was an issue at that point, but they certainly had the opportunity to cash in the first down and spike the ball. The failure to use the new weapon in that position was inexcusable.
Buffalo's defense played exceptionally against Dallas, but was unable to pull out the win because they had no offense. ESPN commentator Tony Kornheiser spent the entire Dallas game praising rookie quarterback Trent Edwards, who was in the process of averaging fewer than eight yards per completion and creating three points of offense.
Edwards looks like a poised quarterback in the pocket in contrast to J.P. Losman, who Edwards has replaced. At this point, looks may be deceiving. Edwards is not actually playing productively at the quarterback position. The play-calling is painfully conservative at times, but Edwards is not effectively moving the chains. On third down, he has only 11 first-down conversions in 34 passing plays, with two interceptions and two sacks. Meanwhile, Losman was a reasonably productive quarterback last season.
Edwards did make a handful of big plays, which would be impressive against previous incarnations of the Baltimore defense. This Baltimore defense is merely mediocre against the pass. The reasons are twofold: struggling cornerbacks and a lack of pass rush.
The most obvious problem is suspect cornerback play from Samari Rolle and Corey Ivy. Top cornerback Chris McAlister missed the game, and his absence was felt. Rolle is past his prime and can get beat in man-to-man coverage. Roscoe Parrish beat Rolle early in the second quarter to draw a pass interference penalty that set up the Bills' second field goal. Ivy was exploited several times late in the game, most notably on a long pass to Lee Evans that set up the Bills final touchdown.
These cornerbacks were there a season ago when the Ravens were the best pass defense in football. The difference is a pass rush that has gone from dominant to pedestrian. The Ravens let Adalius Thomas and his 11 sacks leave in free agency. Maybe they could have survived that loss by itself, but they are also down Trevor Pryce, who has only played two games. The lack of pass rush gives opposing quarterbacks time to complete deep passes against the suspect cornerbacks.
The Ravens are effectively a 4-3 fraud at this point, but the talent is on the roster to turn it around. Their four wins to date have come against teams with a combined six victories. They've won three games by less than a touchdown. They have yet to play a team with a winning record.
The Ravens were built to win this year, and missing the playoffs would be extremely disappointing. With a daunting second half schedule, they will need to play at a much higher level. To get there, they will need the return to health of a number of core players. McNair needs to return, and return healthy enough to pose some threat to defenses down the field. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden has been in and out of the line-up. Productive tight end Todd Heap missed Sunday's game. Right tackle Adam Terry has also missed time. All these players as well as Pryce should return in the next several weeks. They need to recapture a pass rush and a downfield passing attack or they will be embarrassed down the stretch.
Buffalo will spend the rest of the season sorting out its future, most notably at the quarterback position. They will be in a number of games thanks to their improving defense. If Edwards is the future, he should actually start making plays on a consistent basis. The Bills running game was difficult to measure against Baltimore because the Ravens rush defense is still outstanding. Rookie running back Marshawn Lynch ran hard but to little effect against Baltimore. Lynch has had a promising start, if not a magnificent debut like fellow rookie Adrian Peterson.
For the Bills to win, however, they will need to make plays in the passing game. Edwards must get the ball to Evans, their most dangerous offensive player, more consistently. Edwards has some tools, but they need to be careful not to make the same mistake that innumerable teams with young quarterbacks make. These teams have a tendency to project a constant improvement curve, turning the most mediocre performance into cause for hope for the future.
The previous Bills regime made this mistake with Losman. Edwards may or may not be different than Losman, but the Bills cannot just wish him to stardom by admiring his ability to throw checkdowns. They need to make sure he truly is their quarterback of the future.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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